Monday, August 15, 2011

Dad and I: A Cat's Cradle Lesson

Disclaimer on being late with this post. I wrote it several months ago but just got around to posting. I'm slacking!

Every October when I was a kid, dad and I used to take his 1969 van, affectionately named "Old Blue" on a weekend road trip to Martinsville, Va to go to the car races. After an interesting evening scare when we thought Old Blue had rolled onto the train tracks that ran along the race track - just imagine a light the size of the sun and rumble louder than thunder waking you - we decided to find a more peaceful place to camp.

At that time of year, Cherrystone Park closed their facilities but allowed people to camp there overnight. Dad, I, and couple of his buddies had the park to ourselves. Imagine being in a place where the leaves had just turned to fiery oranges, reds, and yellows; chill mornings transitioned to comfortable days, and wildlife of all kinds roamed freely around the site. This was the same time that I discovered photography and couldn't have found a better place to practice. In my mind, I was Ansel Adams and dreamed of capturing majestic images worthy of National Geographic covers.

Funny how time changes things. It is barely perceptible. One day you look up and a lot of your world has changed in directions that you never planned. Back in my childhood, "Cats in the Cradle" was hit song. I liked the melody but never really got what it was about. A few years after college, I packed up and left VB to bounce around the Southeast following a project management career that I stumbled into by accident. While in Atlantic Beach, I started a fishing team to compete on the saltwater circuit. Dad would come down to join us for tournaments. Then in 2000, I had to drop from the circuit due to a fallout in the tech sector of the economy that left me broke. My family stood me up until I was able to recover and then I was off again to follow a paycheck before I finally landed back in Tidewater in 2006.

Ron and Dad hanging by Old Blue shortly before we got evicted from this spot!

So what does this have to do with Kentucky? Well a little of nothing and a lot of everything. For the last several years, dad has been rebuilding Old Blue, spending countless hours turning it into a 460 hp beast of a hotrod. For 42-years, Louisville, KY has hosted the National Street Rod Association show with over 10,000 people coming to show off their custom built hotrods. It may sound strange for those that haven't seen them, but these are truly works of art and master craftsmanship. It is phenomenal what people can do with what was one time destined to be scrap. The show is somewhat of a Superbowl for antique restoration and the venue where dad planned to debut his masterpiece.

Rat Rod, f/7.1, ISO 200, 1/30 second, 29mm, Nikon D300

I was waiting in a dentist office a month prior to the show when "Cats in the Cradle" was playing in the background. It was the first time that I really "got it". When he asked me if I was interested in going a couple of months prior, my initial response was that I was too busy. Work was unbearably heavy and I had volunteer and social engagements to attend. There was no way I could take a week off to spend in Kentucky looking at old cars. Sitting there it hit me that I was the son that was too busy for his father that devoted years of his life so that I could have the career that I do today. That we are getting older and that trivial things are taking precedence over those that truly matter. That I didn't want to think that our last great time together was in a park back in an October of my childhood.

The powerhouse of Old Blue

So last August we set out on an adventurous road trip, just the two of us and Old Blue, traveling 800 miles for something much more than a car show. It was everything it should have been. We laughed at dumb jokes, bickered over directions, recounted old stories, and simply had a great trip. I got to shoot a couple thousands photos of beautiful machines and dad got show off Old Blue to his "customers" as he liked to call them, people that could truly appreciate his work of art, but all of that was secondary.

f/5.6, ISO 400, 1/1250 sec, 16mm, Nikon D300

The truth is I discovered that if you care enough, the "Cats in the Cradle" song can be proved wrong. Don't wait for an opportune time to reconnect. If you do, you will miss it. A lot happens over time but there are some things that stay the same; you just have to try harder to make room for them. Instead just make it happen and you'll have new stories tell of your time together.

f/5.6, ISO 400, 1/1000 sec, 20mm, Nikon D300

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Tale of 2 Hotels

This past weekend, Liz and I took a weekend respite from our hectic work schedules to get away for a couple of days in the VA mountains. Liz had purchased a one night stay at the Homestead, a plush resort in Hot Springs. The small sleepy town is famous for a few things - the multitude of warm mineral rich springs, the home of legendary golfer Sam Snead, and of course, the Homestead itself. To extend the weekend, we decided to drive up on Friday evening and stay over in Lexington, home to VMI and the College of Washington and Lee. The original plan was to explore Lexington on Saturday morning and then head up to the resort that afternoon. It turned out being an experience in social spectrums and as plans go, ours changed on the fly.

The Ugly Truth - William Shatner Isn't Always Right
This will be crushing news to any Star Trek fans, or even those that look back favorably at TJ Hooker, Captain Kirk isn't the best source of travel planning. In order to save a few bucks, we booked our hotel stay in Lexington through Priceline, a website that I have used often in the past to make travel arrangements. This time; however, we decided to try the "name your price" service and leave it to the captain of the enterprise to find us boarding. The result was a night spent in a HoJo that may have possibly been last updated when many young geeks in the making were still excited about a new episode of the original Star Trek airing.

The lobby was furnished with 70's era couched and coffee table. Sadly, it was more modern than the room in which we were about to spend the night. The stench upon opening the door was the first sign that the evening would be mildly uncomfortable. It caused me to check under the beds to see if there was possibly a decomposing corpse left behind by the last occupant. The single light illuminating the room was sickly issuing from a broken shaded ceiling lamp. Thankfully there was nothing scurrying about the room. An 80's era television and dorm room fridge were the extent of luxury items. We had to laugh at the thought that the room was eerily similar to one you would find in a low budget teen slasher film. It really brought it all together when I heard Liz in the bathroom acting as a plumber and fixing the broken toilet.

The one amenity the hotel boasted was the on-site miniature golf course just outside of our sliding glass door. The photo below is of it in all of it's majesty. I don't think Sam Snead built his golf legend start here. The funny thing is that we were in the heart of the most beautiful country in VA and this was the BEST view that we had! I'd be willing to bet that the 18th hole isn't officially sponsored by NASA.

For a change of scenery, we drove into Lexington for dinner. This was a much anticipated moment because I was going to get to enjoy the best bowl of French Onion soup known to have been created in the states. For those that went to school in the western part of VA, or like me had a sister that went to Radford, you probably already have figured out that I'm talking about Macado's. It has been almost 20 years since I last tasted a rich, cheese covered bowl of heaven. I think I started salivating before leaving VB. Well kids, I'm sad to report that they changed the recipe. There must be a cheese shortage! The only cheese was on a piece of french bread that was provided with the soup. It was still tasty but...why Macado's, why?

Ugliness, Part 2
For the second stage of our trip, I can't blame Shatner; however, Mother Nature is at fault. When we woke (well, I'm not really sure we ever truly fell asleep) Saturday morning, we decided to scrap our tour of Lexington in order to try to beat the massive storms that were moving in from the west. As those of you in VA and NC know, the storm system resulted in numerous tornados that devastated much of eastern NC and VA, costing several people their lives and many others their homes. Homestead was an hour drive up through narrow mountain roads from Lexington. For us it made winding up the mountainside in near zero visibility being buffered by 30-knot winds somewhat of an adventure.

In hindsight, I wished I had stopped to capture the massive rapids of the flooding river but getting the camera gear out in the driving rain didn't seem like a great idea at the time. When we pulled into the Homestead, we were greeted by menacing skies. For a moment, the massive building juxtaposed against the stormy skies conjured up images of the Shining. It was oddly beautiful and scary at the same time.

Between the breaks in the rain, I managed to get out to shoot a few photographs as the storm passed through. It is hard to do something like this justice. Standing there it looked even wilder and more menacing.

The Beautiful - Living the Life of the Privileged
OK, I'll be first to admit that I am probably more comfortable in a beach bar with sand covered floors, but there is something to be said for experiencing a place like the Homestead. Im kicking myself for not taking more architecture shots of the interior but truth be told, we were so busy trying to fit in everything we could within 24-hours, I didn't get the time to spend behind the lens. Maybe one day I'll be able to afford to spend several days there but for now the handful of exterior shots will have to do.

We arrived on at 11:00 and the staff graciously let us check-in early. While not extravagantly big, our room was very nice in every detail. I may be a simpleton, but I really dug the idea that the closet light came on automatically when you opened the closet door. It is the small things that keep me happy.

The hotel, itself, is an architectural masterpiece, sprawling over several city blocks. I had to leave a trail of breadcrumbs to stop getting lost. Everything is big! The grand hall when you enter leaves you breathless and that carries throughout the rest of the building. We swam in the indoor pool fed from the mineral springs, lunched in the casino overlooking the golf course, had afternoon tea in the grand hall, dined at Sam Snead's Tavern, had cocktails in the President's Room, explored the Garden Hall at night, and even crashed a wedding reception after party in the Player's Club.

The next morning after breakfast in the main ballroom, Liz headed off to go horseback riding and I ventured around the gardens to photograph the building in the clearing morning.

The following view of the Magnesia Spring just one of the thousands of romantic vistas the Homestead affords. "Afford" in this case is relative. ;-)

I wrapped up the morning with a 28-frame pano from below the main building before we packed it in to head home. Personally, I still prefer to vacation at a location with sand and surf; however, it is nice to have a change every once in awhile even if it does mean occasionally having to wear a blazer for breakfast. If you get the opportunity, it is a nice escape.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Chesapeake Dog Shelter: Images for Hope

As many are aware, I owe the rekindling in my interest of photography to some loveable mutts at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Control facility many years back. I had just moved to Charlotte and was slightly bored. During this time, I was still shooting film and would often travel to the mountains on weekends to hike the trails and shoot the waterfalls. It was a fun time filler but the drives were becoming longer each weekend and the expenses increasing. As far as photography, I was capturing some interesting images but nothing that really garnered any personal excitement.

One Saturday morning on a whim, I ended up driving out to the city animal shelter to see about volunteering. Honestly, I was there for less than noble purposes seeing it as an opportunity to meet other people in the area. The animals were really secondary in my mind. After talking with the volunteer coordinator for a bit and looking at some of the bad photos used for their adoption site, I got this idea that maybe I could help by leveraging my photography talents to produce images that made the dogs look more desirable. With hundreds of dogs passing through the shelter, the staff didn't have a lot of time to devote to taking images and a lot of the time, they relied on web cams captured at the time the dogs were brought into the facility. These grainy images sometimes had the dogs still attached to the catch pole, something that made them look more menacing than adoptable.

I discovered a lot about animal photography as well as myself during the next 2-years. I've covered this in previous posts regarding how to photograph your pets. What I discovered about myself...well, simply put, I discovered there was more to life than my own selfish desires. With a camera and some patience, I could truly make a difference in the community. The images that I created during that time helped improve the rate of adoptions from the shelter. I quickly moved into the digital age to make it easier and more efficient to get the images uploaded to the adoption sites. It wasn't long thereafter that people were seeking me out to take images of there furry family members.

In 2006, I left Charlotte and returned to Hampton Roads. I briefly volunteered at the VB Animal Control before work and life got in the way. It wasn't until the passing of Mahala last summer, my best friend that I adopted from CMPD, that I started thinking about how much I missed helping lost pets find good homes. So earlier this year, I started volunteering at the Chesapeake Animal Shelter and with the Chesapeake Humane Society. I had forgotten the amazing feeling of making the difference in an animal's life. With every click of the shutter, I'm reminded of just how precious life can be, whether it be a person or an animal. I'm looking forward to working with them for some time to come.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Snow Day VB Style

Mount Trashmore, the single great attribution to making garbage a recreational playground, is the highest elevation in the relatively flat Virginia Tidewater. Decades ago, with Virginia Beach growing beyond leaps and bounds, some visionaries had the masterful idea of turning the city landfill into a man made mountain (ok, hill) that would provide endless entertainment possibilities. In it's early stages, a soapbox derby track ran down the East side. It was later decommissioned as interest in the longtime Boy Scout sport diminished. The park though continued to flourish with the building of a skate park that has hosted pro events as well as daily use by local boarders, a playground with a multitude of playground equipment, a running path, and picnic grounds. The sink holes used to excavate dirt for the mountain have filled in with water providing opportunities to fish, canoe, and bird watch. It has become somewhat of an outdoor recreation oasis right inside the confines of the new Town Center.

While still recovering from foot surgery, I missed the opportunity to photograph it during the december blizzard that blanketed the area with up to 14"of snow; however, I got a second chance in early January when a small Saturday snow shower temporarily coated the area in a blanket of white before disappearing by Monday morning. It was a good example of why it pays to have your camera with you even when you aren't on a planned photo trek. We just happened to be driving by on our way to a late lunch when landfill caught my eye, resulting in this image.

From a technical standpoint, the capture was fairly simple. The equipment used was just a Nikon D300, a Sigma 28 - 70mm f2.8 lens, an Induro tripod and a Nikon remote release cable. The latter 2 pieces of equipment were critical for getting a sharp capture. With an ISO of 200, aperture of f/11, and overhead cloud cover; the shutter speed registered at 1/60 sec. I set the exposure compensation to +.1 to ensure that the white snow didn't register as gray. The tripod and shutter release minimized any shake that could have caused blur in the image, either from shooting handheld or by vibrations caused by pressing the shutter button on the camera. The entire setup, shot, and breakdown took 10-minutes.

Compositionally, I wanted to capture the mount as a backdrop to the lake. From most vantage points this was nice but boring. I walked around for a couple of minutes until I found the angle on the wooden fence where it came across the base of the photo and then provided a leading line pointing at the mountain. It gives a strong visual line for the eye to follow within the final image.

Processing consisted of some minor tweaks in Lightroom and dodging/burning in CS5. onOne Phototools was used to make the colors in the photo pop a bit more and increase the contrast.

The one recreational shortcoming of Mount Trashmore is that the City of Virginia beach no longer allows sledding. Its sad that the one place in the city that can be used for rare snow-related sports is off-limits due to safety concerns.